For more than two years now, the barbarity of the Assad regime’s response to a populist uprising inspired by the Arab Spring movement has frozen the United States and the world into the numb shock of inactivity, indecision, impotence. That may have ended on Aug. 21.
When rockets containing toxic chemical agents struck three towns in the suburbs of Damascus (as part of a Syrian bombardment of rebel positions), the results were widely and almost immediately catastrophic, a vision of hell on earth. People died in their beds with no visible wounds or signs of trauma. Others survived, writhing, convulsing and coughing. The images are ... difficult to watch.
At this writing, 355 people were killed in the gas attacks, with another 3,600 injured, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders). Those numbers are almost certain to increase.
One year after President Obama said that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would “change my calculus” on dealing with Syria, it fell to Secretary of State John Kerry to announce, on Monday from the State Department, that Obama’s red line had finally, unambiguously, been crossed. We’re about to discover how beyond that red line lies a frontier as dangerous for America as it will likely be for Syria. And maybe more.
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“There is a reason why President Obama has made clear to the Assad regime that this international norm cannot be violated without consequences. And there is a reason why no matter what you believe about Syria, all peoples and all nations who believe in the cause of our common humanity must stand up to assure that there is accountability for the use of chemical weapons so that it never happens again. ...”
And then, more ominously, Kerry said: “The administration is actively consulting with members of Congress, and we will continue to have these conversations in the days ahead. President Obama has also been in close touch with the leaders of our key allies, and the president will be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.
“But make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people. Nothing today is more serious, and nothing is receiving more serious scrutiny.”
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THE DEVIL, as usual, is in the details. The first option being considered is a punishing air strike against Assad’s military command and control centers.
UnaccountableDrones, commenting at the Foreign Policy Web site, has an answer that Sen. John McCain and other automatic hawks in Congress would endorse: “Go all in: “Completely annihilate Assad's air power, his 50 usable jets, his helicopter gun ships and the runways on his 6 major airfields in a couple of nights launches of Cruise missiles and airstrikes from outside of Syrian borders putting no US lives at risk.
“He's used chemical weapons and there simply has got to be a response to that or the world changes for the worse.”
But Chris Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told John Hudson of Foreign Policy that any plans for surgical strikes against the Syrian regime were likely to fail. “Tactical action in the absence of strategic objectives is usually pointless and often counterproductive," Harmer said Monday in FP’s The Cable.
Harmer said: “[T]his is a low cost option, but the broader issue is that low cost options don't do any good unless they are tied to strategic priorities and objectives. Any ship officer can launch 30 or 40 Tomahawks. It's not difficult. The difficulty is explaining to strategic planners how this advances U.S. interests.”
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THAT VIEW is, frankly, too Machiavellian by half. Any conventional strategic metric, the kind that weighs the costs and benefits of any military intervention according to how it “advances” our “interests,” goes out the window in the face of chemical weapons being used against whole populations of Syrian towns, weapons banned by international consensus with the Geneva Protocol of 1925, weapons used in Syria to kill hundreds and injure thousands more — so far.
The use or the threat of use of these weapons by a totalitarian state, the already horrific recent loss of life, and the potential for their use by Assad again are matters that trump any narrow, reflexive consideration of What’s In It for Us. This is bigger than that. Ban Ki Moon knows it.
“Any use of chemical weapons anywhere, by anybody, under any circumstances, would violate international law,” the United Nations Secretary-General said on Friday, adding that gas attacks constituted “a crime against humanity” deserving of “serious consequences for the perpetrator.”
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Leaving Assad to his own devices is an absolute non-starter. To walk away from nothing less than a moral gut-check for everyone in the civilized world would send a tacit signal of approval, or at least tolerance, of his actions — and few things would invite more such crimes than doing nothing. We’ve been there before, as the middle years of the 20th century made clear.
What’s just as bad is the prospect of an outright invasion, or anything even remotely like it. France seemed to hint at this prospect on Monday. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 radio on Monday there would be a “proportionate response” to the chemical weapons attack, affixing blame to the Assad regime. “It will be negotiated in coming days,” he said, as reported by The Associated Press. “All the options are open. The only option that I can’t imagine would be to do nothing.”
Deutsch Welle reported German government spokesman Steffen Seibert saying much the same thing, stating on Monday that use of chemical weapons “must be punished, it cannot be without consequence.”
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PRESIDENT OBAMA’S preference for consensus in global military action — a coalition of the truly willing — may face its biggest obstacle in his own country. The latest IPSOS/Reuters poll of Americans on whether the United States should intervene militarily in the face of chemical weapons’ use found that only 25 percent supported such an intervention; 46 percent said no. That 25 percent approval was down 5 points, mind you, from a similar poll on Aug. 13.
The national exhaustion with war is the reason for that. But the current state of affairs is unusual. The Syrian situation taps into both the neo-conservative instinct for intervention and the humanitarian reflexes of liberal Americans, with a lot of variables between those seemingly polar extremes. This may be as bipartisan an issue as partisan America has experienced in a long time.
The United States’ immediate military objective manages to be both simple and intricate at the same time: craft a delicate, almost surgical response to these atrocities, one that cripples Syrian military capability without decapitating the Assad regime itself — or incurring loss of civilian lives, casualties whose numbers could dwarf those of the precipitating incident.
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As the drumbeat for war cranks up, Blix’s humanistic, gradualist voice makes welcome sense. But that quintet of permanent members within the global forum of last resort may not be helpful in crafting what France describes as, and what Washington surely agrees should be, a “proportionate response.” Given the certainty of the objections of Council permanent member Russia (an ally and trading partner of Syria) to any military action against Damascus, consultation with the Council looks like a formality doomed to frustration.
Nonetheless, it’s a formality the United States is morally and geopolitically obligated to perform. President Obama, hardly a cowboy and ever cerebral, knows this as well as anyone.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov knows it, too. "The use of force without the approval of the United Nations Security Council is a very grave violation of international law," he said in a Monday news conference.
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IN A SITUATION with no single best optimal option, maybe the best way forward for the United States is to make use of everything available. The United States will of course participate with the Security Council when it convenes about this.
At the same time, the White House should continue seeking regional consensus with other Arab states, as Kerry has begun to do; cultivate the support of France, Germany, the United Kingdom and other NATO nations for any military campaign, a many-hands-light-work approach that has worked in the past; and harden plans for cruise missile strikes on Syrian military infrastructure: military airfields and runways, rail lines, communications centers, command and control centers — this in the expectation that some military response short of full-blown war will happen sooner or later, in a way that either dovetails with the Council’s vote or goes against it, but regardless in any case.
And the Obama administration needs to give itself a good talking-to.
“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation. . . . We’re monitoring that situation very carefully. We have put together a range of contingency plans.”
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President Obama said that at a White House news conference almost exactly a year ago. In the year between then and now, reports have surfaced of similar chemical attacks. Syrian rebels blamed the regime for the deaths of 31 people in an apparent chemical attack on Khan al-Assal, back in March. The Syrian government blamed the rebels.
In April, at Sheikh Maqsoud in the town of Aleppo, at least three people died in a gas attack. The twitching and foaming at the mouth seen in videos from Aleppo are signature symptoms of exposure to nerve agents.
Rafey, commenting at the Foreign Policy Web site: “I can't see how military action can make any difference at this point of the game when the real turning point was a year ago.”
The administration may be paying the price now for its inaction on its previous certainty. The Los Angeles Times reported on Aug. 21 that “The U.S. and its allies have said that evidence indicates the Syrian military has used small amounts of sarin, a nerve agent, on several occasions.” That fact alone, and the possibility of another such gas attack, may be the tipping-point factor in a go/no go scenario.
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THE “RED LINE” laid down by the United States a year ago has probably been crossed more than once already, certainly by the Syrian government — the only player in the country with the rocket technology to do it — and, quite possibly, by the rebels, a hodgepodge of non-sectarian former army members, Islamists, former Iraq insurgents, Chechen militants and ... members of al-Qaeda.
The “red line” — never as much a tripwire as it was a starting point — is now history. The luxury of precedent isn’t really available this time; our spotty history in the region can’t be invoked as a reason for inaction. The use of chemical weapons by either side in this civil war changes the game. And raises the stakes by orders of magnitude.
With military action being planned (some reports have said as soon as Thursday), the new presidential calculus could change everything.
Image credits: Syrian walks among the dead: Reuters. Assad: via EA World View. Kerry: The State Department. Syrian rebel fighter: Associated Press.